We live in cruel times. The immediacy of communication lends itself to serial thoughtlessness and puts the historical illiteracy of the punditocracy on full display. Witness how it marked the passing of Donald Rumsfeld.
In an earlier age, Rumsfeld would have found a home in the pantheon of Americans who held the great offices of state but always fell short of the ultimate prize—the White House. Henry Clay and Daniel Webster come to mind as exemplars of this rare fraternity. Rumsfeld did it all and more—naval aviator, congressman, counsellor to the president, ambassador, presidential envoy, secretary of defense (twice) and arguably the most important presidential chief of staff in American history.
That last role is the one the liberal clerisy cannot fathom. America was shattered in 1974. The Nixon presidency was in its last days. The vice president had already resigned. Soviet communism with its Castro proxies was rampaging through Africa. OPEC held Europe by the throat. Saigon was teetering, and our armed forces were falling apart. The scourge of inflation was wrecking the economy, and many were proclaiming the end of the American experiment.
Into the breech stepped a congressman from Grand Rapids who was so obscure that the panelists on “What’s My Line?” could not guess who he was. America would eventually, as Tip O’Neill said, be grateful that “[God] sent Gerald Ford.” Ford had never run anything bigger than his congressional office and the Yale boxing team, so he sent for Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld quickly began assembling the plans for transition with an eye to both the Cold War and the unrest at home. In foreign policy, Ford and Rumsfeld first convinced the two most famous members of the Cabinet—Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger—to stay to signal to the Soviet Union that the new president would not be trifled with.
Domestically, Rumsfeld capitalized on Ford’s genuine affability and humility to distance the new White House from its secretive and often byzantine predecessor. Jerry Ford would be seen by the public doing regular things—having breakfast with his wife, golfing, attending sporting events, moving freely about the country and regularly meeting with his old colleagues from the Hill, Republican and Democrat. As a result, his popularity hit 71 percent.
Even then, both men thought that stability mattered more than the time-honored Washington practice of throwing the other guy’s people overboard. To buttress the Nixon staff who stayed, he assembled a group of seasoned professionals, including former members of Congress, Washington grandees and businessmen.
The instructions were clear—restore the integrity of the Oval Office. But never, not with Rumsfeld nor with Ford, was there ever a harsh word or leak to the press about Richard Nixon—an example of decency that escapes politics today. That charitable grace led to the pardon of the former president to spare him, his family and the nation the destructive spectacle of seeing a former leader on trial. It may have cost Ford the White House in 1976, but it saved the constitutional balance.
Rumsfeld threw out the “Berlin Wall” system of Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman that cordoned Nixon off from those who had his best interests at heart. The “Spokes of the Wheel” theory that Ford liked created an open door with the president being at the center of numerous advisers. It was Rumsfeld who reminded him that the hub of the wheel could get overheated and that the key to success was that everyone meeting the president had to first work from his “outbox,” not their “inbox.” Rumsfeld brought order to the system and capitalized on the president’s easy-going personality.
Rumsfeld counseled Ford on the tough decisions—the most influential being to have Henry Kissinger focus on the State Department while handing his national security advisor duties to a Ford man, Brent Scowcroft. He was there when Ford sent Marines into Cambodia to rescue the crew of the Mayaguez, and he was there begging Congress not to forsake the South Vietnamese in 1975. Through it all, America slowly righted itself.
Don Rumsfeld made the White House function during a time of crisis, the likes of which had not been seen since the Civil War. His selfless patriotism and mastery of people helped the quiet man from Michigan save the presidency. If that were the only achievement of his long life, he would rightfully be considered among America’s greatest. History will be on his side.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 7/01/2021